President Wilson and his Cabinet, 1916.
Courtesy of Library of Congress
Postmaster General Burleson. Courtesy of Library of Congress
PMG Burleson (right) and Treasury Secretary McAdoo (left). Courtesy of Library of Congress
Woodrow Wilson: Federal Segregation
During Woodrow Wilson’s 1912 presidential campaign, he promised African
Americans advancement. He stated, “Should I become President of the
United States, [Negroes] [sic]
may count upon me for absolute fair dealing and for everything by which
I could assist in advancing the interests of their race in the United
States.”(1) Believing in his promise, many African Americans broke their
affiliation with the Republican Party and voted for Wilson. He did not,
however, fulfill the promises he made during the campaign to the
African American community during his presidency. Less than a month
after his March 4, 1913 inauguration,(2) President Wilson’s Administration took the first steps towards segregating the federal service.
The question of federal segregation was first discussed in high administration circles at a closed cabinet meeting on April 11, 1913.(3) At the Cabinet meeting Postmaster General Albert S. Burleson argued for segregating the Railway Mail Service. He was disturbed by whites and African Americans working in the Railway Mail Service train cars. The workers shared glasses, towels, and washrooms.(4) He said segregation was in the best interest of the African American employees and in the best interest of the Railway Mail Service.(5) Burleson’s ultimate goal was not only to make the railway lines “lily white”(6) but to segregate all government departments.(7) President Wilson replied to Burleson by saying that he had made “no promises in particular to Negroes [sic], except to do them justice.”(8) He argued that he “wished the matter adjusted in a way to make the least friction”.(9) While President Wilson expressed no direct objections to Burleson’s segregation plans, support came primarily from other cabinet members.
after the April 11 cabinet meeting, cabinet members Treasury Secretary
William G. McAdoo and Postmaster General Albert S. Burleson segregated
employees in their departments with no objection from President Wilson.(10) Segregation was quickly implemented at the
Post Office Department headquarters in Washington, D.C. Many African American
employees were downgraded and even fired. Employees who were downgraded were transferred
to the dead letter office, where they did not interact with the
public. The few African Americans who remained at the main post offices
were put to work behind screens, out of customers’ sight.(11)
segregation implemented in the Department of Treasury and the Post
Office Department involved not only screened-off working
spaces, but separate lunchrooms and toilets. Other steps were taken by
the Wilson Administration to make obtaining a civil service job more
difficult. Primary among these was the requirement, begun in 1914, that
all candidates for civil service jobs attach a photograph to their
application(12) further allowing for discrimination in the hiring process.
At the same time, the Railway Mail
Association, representing the railway mail workers,
refused African Americans membership. In response,
African American railway mail workers created an
organization that is known today as the National
Alliance of Postal and Federal Employees Among the
efforts that NAPFE is best known for is their protest
against the use of photographs for identification in
civil service examinations. The Alliance began that
protest in 1914, and continued until it was finally
eliminated in 1940.
soon as the Wilson Administration implemented federal segregation
individuals and groups began to lobby against the administration’s
policy. Congressman John J. Rogers of Massachusetts introduced
resolutions urging for the investigations of the treatment of African
American employees in the Post Office Department and other Federal
Departments. Each one of these measures, however, died on committee
calendars.(13) Groups, such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored
People (NAACP) and the National Independent Political League also
lobbied against segregation. The NAACP led protests, and letter writing
campaigns, and gained the support of some whites. In response to NAACP
protests Wilson replied that departmental segregation was “in the
interest of the Negroes [sic].”(14)
In 1913 a group of African Americans led by the National Independent Political League petitioned the White House. The group met with President Wilson and was assured that “segregation had not been decided upon as an administration policy.(15) After this meeting the group was optimistic. Later that year, however, when a group of white liberals and African American leaders suggested the administration create a National Race Commission to “grapple with the Negro’s [sic] place in an expanding American democracy”(16) they were disappointed when Wilson rejected the plan.
individuals concerned with the segregation implemented by the Wilson
Administration blamed only Wilson’s cabinet members, primarily Burleson
and McAdoo, but not the President himself. They argued that since there
was no executive order implementing segregation, Wilson could not have
known about, or been in favor of the policy. Wilson was, however, aware
of the policy being implemented by members of his cabinet. He, in fact,
approved of segregation plans, and vigorously defended the segregation
policy in personal letters to NAACP board chairman, Oswald Garrison
In his letters to Villard,
Wilson said that the segregation of the African American employees in
the departments was “[not] a movement against the Negroes [sic]”(17) He argued, “We are rendering them more safe in their possession of the office and less likely to be discriminated against”.(18) In other letters to Villard, Wilson said that he favored segregation because it provided African Americans with freedom to advance in their own circle. A practice that curtailed advancement of
African Americans in society.(19)
also revealed his support for segregation in
a letter to the editor of the Congregationalist. He stated, “I would
say that I do approve of the segregation that is being attempted
in several of the departments . . . I certainly would not [have]
. . . if I had not thought it to their
advantage and likely to remove many of the difficulties which have
surrounded the appointment and advancement of colored men and women.”(20)
1) Nancy J. Weiss, “The Negro and the New Freedom: Fighting Wilsonian Segregation” Political Science Quarterly 84 (1969): 63.
4) Kathleen L. Wolgemuth, “Woodrow Wilson and Federal Segregation’ Journal of Negro History 44 (1959): 159.
6) “Postal Reform,” Focus, 6.
10) Judson MacLaury, “Blacks” (paper presented at Annual Meeting, Society for History in the Federal Government, Washington, DC, March 16, 2000).